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Bell box mural painter uses art to give students a second chance

The woman who recently crafted a mural in Acton is also an art teacher who helps nurture skills in at-risk youth
Joanne Feely DeGraaf with the Bell box she recently painted on Queen Street in Acton.

The colourfully-painted Bell boxes in Georgetown and Acton have no doubt turned the heads of those who pass by them. 

One of the latest contributors to the Town-initiated project is Mississauga artist Joanne Feely DeGraaf. Her work, called Wild Water's Edge, can be found on Acton's Queen Street between the LCBO and the Shopper's Drug Mart.

Like much of her body of work, the mural borrows heavily from nature and features animals like turtles and beavers.

"It's a whimsical interpretation of nature, but in a fairly representational depiction," Feely DeGraaf explained.

But she's much more than a mural painter. Feely DeGraaf has worked as an art teacher for the Peel District School Board for almost 25 years. Much of that time has been spent teaching art to students who are at risk of falling through the cracks. It's through her work with the youths that her time as a public art maker began. 

"One of those real-world experiences that I tried to bring into the classroom is public art," she recalled.

Feely DeGraaf got the ball rolling when she contacted the City of Mississauga to get permission to paint two picnic tables. In 2011, her group of 20 of students was featured in local media for their work, then located in the shadow of the Port Credit lighthouse. Called Grandfather Teachings, the tables paid tribute to the Indigenous through their style of art.

The work caught the attention of city staff and the late councillor Jim Tovey, who reportedly loved the public garbage cans painted by the students at the R.K. McMillan Park. Feely DeGraaf chuckles as she recalls Tovey calling them "graphic cans." 

More public art projects with her students came. Murals celebrating war heroes called Century of Heroism Aviation can be found at the Small Arms Inspection Building on Lakeshore Road East. Another Port Credit picnic table called Celebrating the LGBTTIQA2S Community was also created.

One student even crafted a public service announcement for the Youth Gambling Awareness Program through digital photography. The work was displayed at a bus shelter. 

"It can be very reassuring. Who doesn't want to say, even in their own mind, 'I did that. I made that,'" Feely DeGraaf said. "For the most part, these are kids that just are not thriving in the mainstream. They're not earning credit. They're not moving forward. They're sort of hitting a roadblock."

In 2020, Feely DeGraaf tried solo projects, sometimes with help from students and her own kids here and there. A mural with sunflowers at the Discovery Centre in Mississauga was her first. But it was not long until she began looking north.

The Town of Halton Hills has the Bell Box Mural Project, a program to turn the infrastructure into canvases so artists can revitalize them with their work. Feely DeGraaf responded to the municipal artists' call last fall. The work was completed earlier this month. 

She will be taking part in Toronto's dusk-till-dawn event, Nuit Blanche. Starting on Sept. 23, she will have a work displayed at Humber College's Lakeshore campus.